Britain / The philologist
David Crystal is a man who loves language. It shines out of his good-natured, bearded mien and is conveyed in his strong, lucid delivery. He began his discourse on a mournful note.
“Last Saturday, at around 8 pm, Mari-Smith Jones of Alaska, the last speaker of Eyak, died.”
There are 60 languages in the world with only one speaker left, David said, and every two weeks another language dies out: although not when the last speaker dies, but when the last-but-one speaker dies. Of the 6,000 languages spoken on our planet, one half may thus disappear in only a hundred years’ time. If, following Claudia Amengual, we accept and celebrate different languages as different visions of the world, the prospective loss is staggering.
Imagine you are the last speaker, Mr Crystal asked his audience, many of whom were relying on headphones to receive a simultaneous interpretation. “Every last speaker I have met has felt the pressure of their language pressing down on their shoulders. They want it documented in some way at least.” So that what they perceive through their unique idiom might not vanish with them. And then a race against time begins for the language-recorder to convey and elicit from this last representative of their perceptual world: “What is it in your head that represents that language? What cultural allusions? What greeting do you make to people? What songs do you sing at ceremonies?”
Because if it is written down, it can be recovered at some point in the future. If it is recorded, as Hebrew was, it can be resurrected. It happened to an Australian language and children are now relearning it. There are differences, but it remains in structure and essence the original aboriginal language. And yet, “approximately 2,000 languages – one third of all that exist – have never been written down,” David Crystal reported. “People want their language,” he emphasized. Not only to understand each other, but also to express identity. 26 September is World Language Day in a 2008 dubbed International Year of Languages by the United Nations with the intention of focusing public attention on the need to preserve multilingualism.
“Multilingualism,” David was in no doubt, “is a basic human good. It is an index of diversity, of our adaptiveness as a species. The world is a mosaic of visions expressed through language.”
When a language goes, a culture goes with it. David Crystal identified three factors that cause this to happen.
Natural disasters which scatter people also fragment their culture. Language was an unreported victim of the tsunami in south-east Asia, when people were dispersed from the coast to various destinations in the interior, where they were unable to talk to each other.
Political genocide is the ugliest of ogres that strikes a deathblow to language, wiping out a people’s identity with their souls. In less drastic scenarios, extermination may be substituted by repression, when the ruling group forbids vanquished groups to use their languages. There is a long history of this practice, from the Aztecs to Franco’s Spain, where Basques, Catalans and other groups were not allowed to speak or teach the languages on which their sense of regional or national identity was bound up.
Globalization represents the most recent threat, for nowhere is isolated any more. The major languages in each region, whether English, Spanish, Portuguese, Arabic, Swahili or Chinese, have always tended to steamroll others out of existence. Last Eyak-speaker Mari-Smith Jones had two children in Alaska, but they left home looking for job opportunities in the city, where only English-speakers were hired, and they never learned their mother tongue.
So what hope is there? What can be done to save the myriad tongues in danger of extinction? A man given to tidy, constructive thinking —Crystal-clear one might say— the champion of endangered language species set forth another list of three factors: those which experience has shown to be essential to language survival.
A bottom-up approach is the first pre-requisite; the speakers themselves must care about saving the language or else the other measures will be in vain.
Top-down support establishes the other pole between which the language can be energized. Local, regional, national and international government must also want the language to survive. At the highest level, UNESCO has made several statements confirming its support for multilingualism. “We must act now as a matter of urgency,” stated Koïchiro Matsuura, its Director-General recently. By encouraging and developing language policies that enable each linguistic community to use its first language, or mother tongue, as widely and as often as possible,
The third key needed to open the door to an endangered language’s future is, quite prosaically, cash. Multilingualism is expensive. A grammar must be written and a dictionary, teachers must be trained, schools set up, and community centres for parents. A moribund or ailing language needs some US$ 200,000 a year for a period of five years to get it back on its feet again. But is it really so costly? David Crystal asked. At the rate quoted, the future of every one of the 3,000 endangered languages in the world would be made healthy at a cost of US$3 billion: the equivalent of 5 months' spending by the Pentagon on the war in Iraq.
Yet, declared David, an unforeseeable and invaluable ally has appeared on the scene to catalyze and underpin the process of language rescue: Internet. It is hard to believe that most of us had never sent an e-mail until the mid-1990s. Google didn’t come into existence until 1999 and texting only started up in 2002. Facebook and Youtube came into their own only a year ago. It is all so very recent and developing so vertiginously. What it means for endangered languages and the cultural identities of their speakers is that it is now very easy for them to maintain a public presence. All they need is a computer and an electricity supply, and even remote destinations often have these. David described how his home language, Welsh, was now guaranteed thanks to Internet because it won the interest and involvement of young people. If teenagers —the next parents— are not enthused, he said, languages will die. In this respect, Navajo was another success story, being used for Internet across a widespread and now more united reserve in the USA.
Yet if Internet is a boon, is it not equally a threat? Is it not also an instrument of globalization, with English, in particular, sweeping all other languages before it? David Crystal began his response to this concern with some facts and figures about the WorldWideWeb. It was originally developed exclusively in English, he said, and in 1995, 90% of Internet content was in English. By 2000, however, that figure was down to 75% — and in 2003, for the first time, the majority of web hostings were in languages other than English. And there is a huge amount of non-English content in the offing. China has yet to made its presence felt — and then there is South America, with only 12–15% of its population online; and Africa, with a mere 5% online. “The balance of languages online will begin to reflect the balance of languages in the real world,” he suggested. In any case, he continued, there is no reason to believe that English will always be the leading world language. A thousand years ago, Latin might have been expected to hold limitless sway. “The question is, not which language, but which culture will be dominant in a hundred years’ time? English, Chinese, Arabic — or Spanish?, the fastest-growing language according to the current scenario.”
Moreover, in Crystal’s view, while “English will be the world’s lingua franca for the immediate future, there is no close link between the arrival of a global language and the suppression or disappearance of local languages.” A global language may be employed for certain purposes, such as commerce, technical and technological vocabulary and airline communications, while within a local culture the bulk of communication, conversation, story-telling, songs and laments, jokes and turns of phrase, will remain in the indigenous tongue.
The discourse of this lover of language dwelt on the power of a shared speech and culture to lend cohesiveness to a society and ground it a common identity. Yet he warned that a shared language by no means guarantees freedom from conflict, which is often internecine and restricted within the national boundaries of monolingual countries: Vietnam, Cambodia, Rwanda/Murundi being telling examples.
Awareness of language as a double-edged sword brings us to two people who have witnessed or studied the power of words to turn people against each other, and to force cruelty and discord into lives that formerly were at peace.
David Crystal OBE was born in Lisburn, Northern Ireland, in 1941 and grew up in Wales and England. He is a linguist, academic and author, co-author or editor of over 100 books on the topics of language and linguistics. He is Honorary Professor of Linguistics at the University of Wales, Bangor.
Next article Back to introduction